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How To Tell A Good Picture

( Originally Published 1920 )



By CHARLES H. CAFFIN, AUTHOR OF "AMERICAN MASTERS OF SCULPTURE," "AMERICAN MASTERS OF PAINTING," "HOW TO STUDY PICTURES," ETC.

TO appreciate the beauty of a poem we must study the poet's language and his conception. If the poem is in French, we cannot fully enter into it without a knowledge of the French language. To appreciate a picture we need equally to acquaint ourselves with the painter's language, or medium of expression, and also to try to place ourselves at his point of view, in order to realize his conception.

Before enlarging upon both of these, let us note two wrong ways of looking at a picture. Watch many of the visitors to Sargent's Hall in the Boston Public Library. They glance at the paintings; then espy the printed description; pick it up and work their way through the maze of more or less unfamiliar names and myths, lifting their heads occasionally to identify the details. It is a long description and hard reading. The end reached they ejaculate, "How interesting!" and pass on their way. Or, again, watch the people in a picture gallery. How many move round, catalogue in hand, intent particularly on learning the painter's name and the subject of his picture and on verifying the subject in the details. If without consulting the catalogue they can correctly attribute a picture to a painter, they are jubilant. Such progress have they made in their art education !

The Sargent example illustrates the tendency to interpret pictures entirely in a literary way; the other, that method of studying by labelling, sorting, and arranging in separate pigeon-holes of the brain for identification. The latter ignores the aesthetic qualities of a picture, the former misinterprets them.

Both errors arise from our system of school education, which is devoted to the development of the intellect, with little attention to the moral, scarcely any to the sense side of our natures. Yet the senses are always with us and in constant communication with the brain, though in an untrained, haphazard, and often quite unconscious manner. In a limited degree the child's sense of sight is trained, as, for example, to distinguish between straight and crooked lines, but not to appreciate the subtle inflections of a line, as every Japanese child learns to do; so, as we grow older, these inflections have no meaning for us, make no impression upon us, apart from the object which they help to depict. The drawing of the human form is nothing more to us than a representation of some man or woman, whereas to the artist it is primarily an expression of beauty, as perceptible as the ripple of melody in music. In the same way the child obtains a rudimentary knowledge of form, but little or no aesthetic perception of it: still less of composition, of the effects produced upon the senses by repetition or by contrast. It learns to name this the oak and that the birch, but not to study the sturdy bulk of the one and the delicate sprinkle of the other, the massive trunk and muscular arms, and the tapering stem and pendent branches. So, too, with color; the child is taught to give names to painted discs, but not to appreciate the harmonies of color, still less to note the effects on nature's colors according as they are played upon by light or shadow.

It is names, names, always names. We are taught to classify, name and identify, not to feel. The education being confined to mental conceptions and to the words embodying them, it is not strange that with most people the interest in a picture is solely a "literary" one, addressed to the subject and not to the painter's language (of which we shall speak presently), through which it is expressed. And yet it is just this expression which is the main virtue in a good picture, making it a separate work of art as distinguished from a prose or poetical treatment of the same subject by a writer.

The fault is often with the painter. A great many pictures convey nothing more to us than a story, the incidents of which could be more fully and forcibly related in words. Such pictures are not "good": they do not rise to the possibilities of art. Or, some painters try to tell the story precisely as the writer would: "This is Juliet and that the potion; observe also the accuracy of the costume and of all the details." But there, perforce, they stop; the fixing of the moment is fatal to the effect. The poet can give us the approaching dread, the supreme moment, and the following horror; the scene lives and moves in our imagination. But the painter-he chooses his moment and must abide by it; and lest we should mistake the maiden for some other heroine of romance, he has to write "Juliet" beneath his picture, or we should not understand it. He has chosen a subject which literature can better treat, and he has been forced to bolster it up with literary suggestion, and even so it is unsatisfying. Why? Because he has not relied upon his own painter's language, or chosen a subject which that language can express more adequately than words. The words of his language are: line, form, composition, color, tone, light and shade, and atmosphere, in infinite variation and union. The aesthetic effect of these, their impression, that is, upon our sense, is not translatable into words.

When you listen to music, do you try to interpret it into words? You allow it to appeal directly to your sense; blended, if you are a musician, with an intellectual appreciation of the science displayed, but never confused with words. Music has its own separate language. So, too, has painting; and, for that matter, sculpture and architecture also, but for the present we are speaking of pictures. We shall find a picture to be "good" in proportion to the extent with which the painter has relied upon this separate language.

There is composition. The indifferent painter tries to represent all the facts; the good one eliminates some, retaining the essentials and grouping them to produce a unified instead of a scattered whole. This whole will convey to your sense an impression of sublimity, tranquillity, awe, tenderness, or what not, according to the artist's motive, and all the methods employed will be contributory. Study the composition in detail: sometimes its beauty depends upon parallelism of line or repetition of direction, as in Tintoretto's Mercury with the Graces; sometimes upon contrasted lines, as with Vedder's Anarchy in the Library of Congress. Then, too, there will be aesthetic meaning in the inflections of the lines themselves. Regard the color not as tinting, designed to relieve the monotony of the canvas, but as a medium of emotional expression, chosen to convey the painter's mood; the different hues related to one another so as to produce a harmony, which appeals to us as a whole and not in spots. The painters call this color-relation "tone." Another word they use is "values," to express the way in which color is modified by the action of light and shadow or by the greater or less amount of atmosphere which intervenes between the object and the spectator. Thus blue satin appears almost white where the light shines strongest, and approximates to black in the deepest shadows. The grass is green, but becomes gradually grayer as it recedes from the eye. Both hands of a figure are the same color only so long as they are represented in the same plane; if one is placed further back in the picture, not only is the arm foreshortened (a matter of correct drawing), but its flesh-tints are modified. There is a difference in "value."

These are the scientific effects of light, shadow, and atmosphere; but the artist does more with them. He arranges his lights and shadows so that, independently of the color, they shall themselves combine into a harmonious whole. You will find a focal point of light and another one of shadow, and many gradations of both between. And note the highest light is not a glare which blinds you, or the deepest shadow a blot which obstructs the eye : both are penetrable. Then, too, the atmosphere is made contributory to emotional expression : silvery, for example, in Corot's landscapes, warm and lambent in a Daubigny, laden with wind and moisture in one of Winslow Homer's marines.

Another quality intimately associated with the action of light is "texture." On a table is a covering of yellow velvet, a porcelain vase of the same color, and a lemon. The action of the light upon each of these surfaces will produce a different texture. And there is more than that involved in texture. With our eyes shut we could distinguish between these objects by handling them. If the painter through the sense of sight can stimulate into fancied activity the sense of touch, he ministers to our satisfaction. To this also is attributable the pleasure we derive from the modelling of the objects. They are not like pieces of paper pasted one upon another; they have bulk and substance, and in imagination we cannot only pass our hands over the face of them, but even round behind them.

These, briefly, are the words at the disposal of the painter, which, in a greater or less degree, according to his ability, he combines to convey his meaning; and this meaning, representing the particular point of view from which he has studied his subject, call it his conception or the sentiment of his picture or what you will, is another test of a "good" picture. It may be sublime, as in Titian's Assumption; tender, as in one of Troyon's landscapes; magnificently subtle, as in a Rembrandt portrait; or elegantly sensuous in a still life by Vollon: whatever it be, it is the reflex of the artist's personality. Be sure to look for it, since it, represents the best he has to give, beside which all the other qualities are primarily a means to an end.

This point of view is the subjective side of his art, declaring how the subject affects himself; necessarily, it is united with the objective point of view. For example, in a portrait the painter has to produce a good likeness (the objective fact), but he should also represent the sitter's character as it shows itself to him. Herein is the subjective capacity, and the good portrait-painters are those whose suspectibilities are so alert that they can catch the composite ingredients of a sitter's personality,-that is the "analytical" faculty,-and whose comprehension is so complete that they can express it as in a formula,-which is the "synthetic" faculty. So, too, in landscapes and marines, there is something better than the accurate record of what any one of us can see for himself. If the artist, in his capacity of creator, which every artist in some degree should be, can open new windows for us, through which we may see unexpected beauty in the simple moods of nature, we rank his picture "good."

Briefly, then, we test the goodness of a picture partly by the conception which it embodies, the revelation, in fact, of the artist's point of view, and partly by the skill with which he has employed the language of his craft,-the drawing, composition, color, light and shade, tone, values, and atmosphere. If any one picture included all these in the fullest degree, it would be the perfect picture, a consummation impossible to imperfect humanity. Therefore, in judging whether a picture is good, do not insist upon the loftiest conceptions, or expect to find all the elements of expression uniformly good. Rather, judge each picture on its own merits. What did the painter set out to do and how far has he accomplished it? In this way you will discover that there are infinite varieties of "good," and that it is better to try and enjoy them all than to limit your appreciation by expecting too much. On the other hand, a familiarity with these tests of a good picture will enable you to reject what is obviously trashy.

So far we have been talking of paintings, which few of us can afford to possess; but, through the union of science and art in modern photography, good reproductions are within the reach of even moderate pocketbooks. A good reproduction is much more than a memorandum, furnishing the means of identifying a picture. It is itself a work of art, reproducing almost all the charms of the original except its colors; and the latter it suggests. The subtlest thoughts of great writers are often conveyed, not directly, but by suggestion; and "black and white," or sepia and white, though merely arbitrary mediums, just as words are, can move the imagination to supply the color. We do not miss the color in one of Whistler's Venetian etchings. On the other hand, there are bad reproductions as well as good. How shall we distinguish between them?

We are apt to think that photography is absolutely truthful; while, as a matter of fact, the bare, mechanical, scientific process, unmodified by artistic intervention, consistently lies. Blond hair, for ex-ample, in a dull light will be rendered as if dark brown, and in a strong light will result in silvered locks. In the old, merely mechanical photograph of a picture there will often be a complete disturbance of the artist's purpose. Let us imagine a portrait of a lady in a pale yellow dress, trimmed with cream-colored lace, seated against a back-ground of blue silk. The whole picture is light, but the figure is intended to count as lighter than the background; and there is a very delicate difference between the hues of the dress, lace, and flesh, and much subtlety in the values as the light and shade caress the various textures. The bad reproduction will show a darker figure against a nearly white background, and an indiscriminate blur instead of the refined details and delicate scheme of values.

But in a good reproduction art intervenes, in the actual operation of photographing, as well as in the subsequent stages of developing and printing, so that the artist's intention is reproduced.

And it is precisely as works of art that good reproductions may be fairly rated; a contribution to art very characteristic of the age. The great paintings are locked in private collections or only to be seen on occasional visits to museums; but through these artistic prints they may become a part of our intimate belongings.

N. B. This writer and Mr. Ruskin do not quite agree (see p. 36). But the reader must re-member that Mr. Ruskin had left us before photography had reached its high pitch of excellence of today.

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